With eight games left for the majority of the Champions League contenders, and Liverpool stealing a march on their rivals by thumping Watford 5-0, it’s well worth a look at how the race for top four is stacking up, and who is likely to finish where when the season ends in May.
In terms of who prima facie has the best odds of finishing in the top four, right now you’d say that Man United and Liverpool are looking pretty safe, with Spurs probably about two-thirds of the way there and Chelsea looking like big outsiders. Of course, there are still two or three huge games that could go a long way to deciding what happens, and although Chelsea’s fate isn’t quite in their own hands, wins against both Spurs and Liverpool would go a long way towards turning the tables in their own favour.
THE STATE OF PLAY
The first thing to look at is the current state of the table. United are looking pretty safe with 65 points, then Liverpool who have played a game more with 63, Spurs on 61 and Chelsea lagging behind on 56. With Liverpool and Spurs boasting a superior goal difference to the Blues, it’s likely that Chelsea will need a five or six point swing in their favour, which is far from impossible given that they play both teams, and given that Spurs have to face Champions elect Manchester City.
The next thing to look at is the quality of the opposition and try to predict where each respective team might slip up, and roughly how many points are being looked at for a UCL qualification. Liverpool finished fourth last year with 76 points last year, one ahead of Arsenal, and it’s looking very much like a similar number will be required this year, with 76 (2.0 points per game), being touted as the magic number.
Website soccerstats.com have a very thorough statistical analysis of the run-ins, showing which teams have the easiest and hardest run-ins, in terms of the points per game (PPG) secured by their remaining opponents home and away.
Given this metric, Liverpool have the easiest run-in of the four, as their respective opponents average 1.17 points where the Reds face them. Their remaining three home games are all against opponents who average less than one PPG away from home, as well as their away trip to West Brom, where the Baggies manage just 0.87 PPG.
Chelsea and United are pretty much level pegging in terms of difficulty, with the Blues facing opposition averaging 1.26 PPG and United 1.27 PPG. United have the trip to the Etihad which looks like a defeat on paper, but their only other opposition above 1.5PPG is their trip to Brighton (1.60PPG). Chelsea meanwhile, have probably the most consistent PPG level, with two tough home games and four potentially sticky away trips meaning that six of their eight opponents average between 1.00 and 1.80 PPG.
And Spurs come off worst in this measure, as they face Man City at home (2.53PPG) and Chelsea away (2.13 PPG) giving them an average difficulty of 1.40 PPG. Nevertheless, if Spurs can get something at the Bridge then they’re in business, as their only other potentially sticky game is also Brighton away.
So looking at each team’s fixtures in a bit more detail, we can start to see where top four will be won (or lost). For this part, I’ll work from the top of the table down, so beginning with Man United. United’s games are as follows, along with a prediction based purely on their opposition’s PPG at home or away:
West Ham (A) – W (date TBA)
Swansea (H) – W
Man City (A) – L
West Brom (H) – W
Bournemouth (A) – W
Arsenal (H) – W
Brighton (A) – D
Watford (H) – W
Prediction: 6 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss, 19 points – Total of 84
The first thing to note is that some of these games will be harder or easier than on paper. Brighton’s home form is excellent, but they were trounced by Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea, so it’s entirely conceivable that United also go there and win easily. On the other hand, Arsenal at home is an easy fixture on paper, with the Gunners averaging just 0.87 points away from home and have only one point from their four games away at the top six, but the Gunners are still one of the best sides in the country, and should give United a game.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that there are any massive banana skins there for United. So you would say 80 points as a minimum and probably between 82 and 84 is a fair assessment. They look pretty home and dry, as you can’t see them dropping the nine points that would be needed to even give Chelsea a mathematical chance.
The Reds have the nicest fixtures on paper, and here they are:
Palace (A) – W
Everton (A) – D
Bournemouth (H) – W
West Brom (A) – W
Stoke (H) – W
Chelsea (A) – D
Brighton (H) – W
Prediction: 5 wins, 2 draws, 17 points – Total of 80
We’ll talk about the Chelsea game at the end of the article, but for the sake of it I’m putting it down as a draw for now, as it’s a hard game for both teams. Looking at the fixtures in a little more detail, it’s hard to argue that Brighton, Stoke and Bournemouth at home, as well as West Brom away shouldn’t be four wins.
The main sticking points here are the Palace game and the Merseyside Derby. On paper, Liverpool should beat Palace easily, but have found Selhurst Park to be a sticky ground to play at in recent years, with Palace something of a bogey team for Liverpool. Likewise, derby games are always unpredictable, although Liverpool have a better record over Everton than over most, so a draw is probably a reasonable prediction. Nevertheless, if there are about four points to be dropped there, Liverpool should still make 76 points, and between 78 and 80 is far from an unreasonable suggestion.
Spurs have the hardest fixtures on paper, here’s how they look:
Newcastle (A) – W (date TBA)
Chelsea (A) – D
Stoke (A) – W
Man City (H) – L
Brighton (A) – D
Watford (H) – W
West Brom (A) – W
Leicester (H) – W
Prediction: 5 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss, 17 points – Total of 78
Lots to look at here. The first thing to note is again, we’ll talk about Chelsea later. But yeah, a defeat is more likely than a win in that one for Spurs. However, whilst Man City at home is a game that City will expect to win, their trip to Anfield, coupled with Spurs’ home form against the top six this season (three wins, one loss) and City’s previous trips to Spurs could well make that interesting.
As against United, a trip to Brighton is probably easier than on paper as well, so that’s another place where Spurs could make up a couple of points, but much as Liverpool might be wearily eyeing that Palace trip, I can’t imagine Spurs are looking forward to travelling to Newcastle, one of their recent bogey teams, either.
Overall, Spurs I think are probably the biggest wildcard. If they struggle in their next few games against Chelsea and City, they could easily slip down to about 75 points, but equally could overhaul the Citizens and go on to finish with over 80 points. So I’ll meet in the middle and stick with around 78.
And finally, the Champions. Here’s their run-in:
Burnley (A) – D (date TBA)
Spurs (H) – D
West Ham (H) – W
Southampton (A) – W
Huddersfield (H) – W
Swansea (A) – W
Liverpool (H) – D
Newcastle (A) – W
Prediction: 5 wins, 3 draws, 18 points – Total of 74
Okay, so Chelsea have a very interesting fixture list. They have the two huge games against Liverpool and Spurs, which realistically are going to be the biggest factors in seeing who finishes top four. Chelsea realistically cannot afford to lose either, and probably need to win both. If they can turn those two draws into wins, then they will most likely finish on 78 points, and realistically that probably should be enough.
However, as mentioned above, Chelsea have four potentially sticky away games, all of which are varying degrees of interesting. On paper, Chelsea should be getting nine points from trips to Newcastle, Saints and Swansea, but all of those teams average at least a point per game at home, all of them will likely be scrapping for something (apart from possibly Newcastle) and all of them have picked up at least two points at home to top six sides. And that’s not even factoring in Burnley, the other game that on paper Chelsea could well drop points in. Either way, Chelsea need to get ten points from their four away games to just be in the mix.
And this brings us to the two biggest factors that are against Chelsea right now. They are unlikely to do significantly worse than either Liverpool or Spurs in the run-in, but that simply isn’t good enough. As mentioned at the start of the article, they need to do significantly better than at least one of them, given that five points is the absolute minimum swing that is required.
And the second factor is that Chelsea are comfortably in the worst form of the four teams. A comfortable win over bottom team West Brom and a less comfortable 2-1 win over Palace are Chelsea’s only league wins in their last four games, losing to Bournemouth, Watford, Man United and Man City with just three wins in their nine games since the turn of the year. To expect the Blues to raise their level enough to see off two of the country’s in-form sides in Liverpool and Spurs, as well as expecting them to raise their game away from home when they have just two wins in their last nine away games, may be asking too much.
Overall, if I was a betting man, I would be very much playing this one on the safe side. The odds on Chelsea finishing in the top four might be reasonably long at this stage (and for more information on the odds if you fancy the Blues to overhaul Spurs or LFC check out Betting Top 10, a comprehensive site that offers lots of good deals) but they probably aren’t as long as they should be.
The Blues can now finish on a maximum of 80 points, targets that Liverpool and Spurs can reach even if they both lose to the Blues. I don’t think the game is quite up for Antonio Conte, but he’s close to reaching last chance saloon. The next round of fixtures, Palace v Liverpool and Chelsea v Spurs, will be crucial, but Chelsea need everything to go their way in the final two months of the season.